Escaping the prison of our memories


“What we remember from our past contains the clues to our present and future.”. Maureen Murdock, in her excellent book Unreliable Truth: On Memoir and Memory. 

I read this sentence, and I paused. Maureen’s remark resonated profoundly and represented a new doorway to my eternal quest to better understand who I am. I always wondered where are my childhood memories hiding. I have very few, mainly the ones that are not so pleasant, though I had a very good childhood in many ways. 

Why did I choose those memories? And how are they affecting who I am today?

While pondering on this thought, a memory flashed back vividly from my childhood, a school memory.

I believe I was ten years old. There was a painting competition at my girls-only school, and I was excited to participate. My elder sister, who was and still is very talented in painting, also joined. 

I remember submitting my two paintings, and I remember the moment I showed them to the art teacher.

She scanned the paintings carefully with her eyes, then went silent for a few moments. “Did Heba paint them for you,” Heba being my elder sister, she asked with a cold, sharp voice. I assured her with tears in my eyes that my sister didn’t even help me and that those were my creation.

However, my paintings were disqualified from the competition, and they were not going to be exhibited with other paintings.

Instead, the art teacher arranged to display them with few others in a forgotten corner on one of the school walls, a corner dedicated to paintings that were too sophisticated for a participant’s age. My drawings were sitting there, silent and ashamed. Like me, they were experiencing a mix of anger for the injustice, shame, and a deep feeling of inadequacy.

I declared that day that I am not creative, and from then on, I kept a distance from engaging in any artwork, though I stayed an art lover.

Later on, in my early thirties, I revisited creativity during a heated conversation with a dear friend. John is a very talented artist with exhibitions all over the world. He shares his gift and passion for art with his art students at university. 

He tried to convince me that I am creative and that my choice to work in the software industry and the concepts I developed for various software products were a clear expression of personal and collective creativity. I thanked him for his kind suggestion and dismissed the feedback completely. Driving back home that day, all I felt was anger and sadness.

Reflecting at that event, I can see why the wounded child in me rejected the whole conversation. I refused tenaciously even to consider the possibility of being creative. I made peace with my non-creative identity. His suggestion was a threat to part of my identity. It also brought back feelings of shame and inadequacy.

My 10-years old memory wasn’t alive in my conscious mind, so I didn’t understand my strong negative reaction. 

The first time I visited this school memory was later on, in my early forties, during a 5 Rhythms dance workshop (5 Rhythms is a dynamic movement practice that brings one fully into the body.)

On that day, we were dancing the anger emotion and expressing it with movement. 

“What did they tell you that made you angry? How did they limit you? What are you angry about?” Emma, the instructor, was giving us cues while dancing to drop deeper into any anger that is still residing in our physical body and that we needed to release through dance. 

That school memory popped up out of nowhere. I danced the rage for the injustice that this little girl was subjected to. I danced and cried and wondered where was this memory hiding in my body, and how did it find its way back to my consciousness.

I released most of the emotions attached to that memory back then though I didn’t reflect much about the details of the memory.

Maureen’s questioning about the role of our memories in shaping our present identity, lead me to find the missing piece in the puzzle. I decided to revisit the same memory as an adult for the first time. I asked the little girl’s permission to take a more in-depth look at what happened without invoking the pain. 

I was astonished and embarrassed by the discovery.

How the hell did I not see this for all those years?

From my adult objective point of view, the incident was a testimonial of my creativity. My paintings were disqualified because the teacher thought they were too good for my age. 

How did my internal judge, and my victim lead me to focus for more than forty years on how the art teacher, God’s protector of art on earth for that 10-years old girl, declined my creativity. It never occurred to me once that the accurate interpretation of that memory that there was a possibility that I was/is highly creative.

It amazes me how my sharp, analytical mind missed the whole point of the memory and allowed me to indulge in the negative interpretation that kid had.

As if the facts of the memory were not the active ingredient in that memory. I registered the feelings that I felt back then, that of shame and of not being good/creative enough, and I kept revisiting the emotions over the years blindly.

Suddenly I found freedom by reframing that same memory.

The possibility of recreating parts of my identity and my story by objectively revisiting my memories is exhilarating. Dwelling on the past is counter-productive most of the time, yet visiting it to look for new meaning can be healing. 

I extend this invitation to myself and you to visit the past with imagination and creativity and to question the core of every memory. 

Why did you choose that specific memory to hold onto? And how did you alter it over the years? Are you willing to give it a new, more conscious interpretation with more compassion to yourself and others to give yourself permission for a more joyful and meaningful life?